This post first appeared at PassionforCinema.
As a race, we are more scared by human fears than atrocities to humans. The latter just disaffects us, or like a reporter in Hotel Rwanda says, “They’ll watch it, say, ‘Oh! That’s horrible,’ and continue with their dinners.” It is exactly this reaction that director Terry George is trying to keep us from, by focusing on a hotel manager (the real life Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle) and his efforts to protect his family and over a thousand other ‘Tutsis’, who have taken refuge at his hotel.
First, a few words on the conflict (what I learnt from the movie): Rwanda was colonised by the Belgians, who for administrative purposes split the population into ‘Hutus’ and ‘Tutsis’ (interesting side-note: these two words don’t attract the ire of the spell-check on Microsoft Word). Tutsis were the minority, taller and fairer than their Hutu counterparts. Using the common method of divide and rule, Belgians gave the Tutsis power (these were the administrative purposes). When they left, it was obviously the Hutus who usurped power. They treated the Tutsis badly. The Tutsis rebelled. The Hutus formed a militant army of their own (the ‘Interhammwe’, separate from the Rwandan army but being helped by them), and started “denying the Tutsi cockroaches volunteers”. The events in Hotel Rwanda take place at the Hotel Milles Collines when the Interhammwe have power over the capital Kigali.
Hotel Rwanda has been widely criticised on two counts: on not being ‘artistic’ enough, and for not focusing enough on the genocide the movie is situated in. But it is exactly these two facts that made the movie so hard-hitting for me, in fact more so on the second watch than on the first.
This movie does not take the form of art, and for good reason, because art, at its core, involves fakery, even of the fakery is being used to get through to some deeper truth. It is the exact form of fakery that distinguishes one artist from another. How else can we be sure that a clip we are watching is from one director or another? Once when I was in sixth class, we had four extracts from books, one by a cricketer, one by a filmmaker, one by a swimmer, and one by a writer. Even then, I could tell that that one was by a writer. Even in this piece, you can clearly see the writer, in the overuse of commas and brackets, for example. The whole idea is that we must not be aware of the person behind the camera, just the people in front of it.
The movie focuses on the efforts, through bribery and ass-kissing and other hotel manager ways, of Paul Rusesabagina to protect his wife (who’s a Tutsi herself), his kids (considered Hutus because their dad is and Rwandans don’t believe in calling people half-bloods) and over a thousand Tutsis who have taken refuge at his hotel. They have an idea of what’s happening outside, and a good part of the movie involves Paul and his wife Tatiana (pronounced Ta-ciaa-na) and their fears, during all the scenes about which I had a lump in my throat. This is what struck home; while – and because – I had an idea of the political rumblings outside the hotel, I was scared to death for these two. It is a general fact that the only way we can feel real sadness for a big set of people is by completely empathising with the feelings of some among them. Take for example The Pianist, or Githa Hariharan’s Fugitive Histories in which a girl’s guilt walking through an unsettled riot victims’ colony made me feel guilty about ever complaining, or Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People which is an almost exuberant look at the lives of the victims of the 1984 Bhopal Gas tragedy.
I understand I haven’t said much about the movie as a movie, making this more of a rebuttal than a review. But, the fact is that there isn’t all that much to say; it’s almost like a documentary in its stark realism – but has the advantage over one in its lack of impersonalness – and has to be watched. It cannot be described, at least not by me. It is a movie where there is no one we can call an ‘auteur’. It derives completely from real-life events. Though everyone is excellent in their work, no one brings a stamp of self to it, and this, I say, is what gives the movie its greatness. And a great movie it very much is. In the aftermath of this movie, you question the value of all art. And though you may come up with an intellectual justification, in your heart you really don’t feel it. Why all of it when there is Hotel Rwanda which so faithfully documents the failings and triumphs of humanity? But the real question is not that; that is just a minor question, just the art part. The real question is, how can we bear to enjoy when there is this happening? I watched this movie last night, and while this feeling has mostly dissipated, it hasn’t gone. None of the other movies I’ve watched or books I’ve read have made me ask that question. None. And certainly never on a second viewing.